Sunday, July 31, 2005

Best Talker I Never Taped

Cage’s most famous musical composition is 4’ 33”. It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. His first book is Silence. His is the sound of a silencer. Cage tried to lower the rising deafening decibels of twentieth century music.

Cage was a wonderful talker. He lived at the end of his life on west 18th Street. From a window we could watch traffic moving up 6th Avenue. He had there a collection of cacti, of succulents; I presume Cage was as expert with cacti as he was with mushrooms. Were some of his cacti edible?

Cage was the best talker I never taped. As it happens, I taped many interviews. Eugene McCarthy and Daniel Berrigan had a direct understanding of the world, and man’s duty to it, far greater than Cage. Anarchy, by their standard, evinces fatuous dated quietism. Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, outside of twentieth-century society like Cage because of their homosexuality, nevertheless were able to present themselves and their work in a significant way. W.H. Auden and Denise Levertov were better writers.

I tried to interview Ezra Pound. I phoned his Venice home when I was in Florence. An English woman answered -- Dorothy Shakespeare? Olga Rudge? “You wish to see Mr. Pound?“ she asked. “Write first.” I returned to New York and, as I composed my letter, Pound died.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Writing through Aesop

Ray Johnson buys shoes at J.C. Penney
To haunt a beach

Where a gull he names

Stalks a horseshoe crab named

“Why don’t you walk sideways?”
The gull asks the crab.

Because I cannot fly.
“Want me to teach you?” Asks


I could get crabby. “What
great shoes you have,”

Robin tells Ray.
I cannot swim with them.
_____ _____

Crab: A bug once said to an ox:
How come a big strong fellow like you

Is content to serve mankind
And do all their hard work for them

While I, who am no bigger than you see,
Live on their bodies

And drink my fill of their blood,
And never do a stroke at all.

To which the ox replied:
“Men are very kind to me

And so I am grateful to them--
They feed and house me well

And every now and then they show their love
By patting me on the neck.”

“They’d pat me too” said the bug
“If I let them, but I take care they

Don’t, or there’d be

Is that the ox who --
Asked Ray

--who was yoked with a horse.
The farmer whipped his poor makeshift team

Across the stubble field
The whole hot April day.

As the sun finally set
And the yoke and muzzle dropped

The horse asked the ox
‘Who will carry the ploughman home?’

The ox had surprise written
On his face: Why

Said he
you to be sure of course.
_____ _____

“Yuh, that’s the same ox,”
Said the crab, in whose mouth

Appeared a toothpick.
“Started to lose weight.

The farmer has a mean dog
Who likes to sleep in the manger

And whenever the ox
Goes to eat

He growls and snaps and won’t let him.’’
“What a selfish beast!” said Robin

“He can’t eat oats and yet
Won’t let those eat who can.

What’s this dog’s name?”
“Ashbery,” answered the crab.

“Oh Ashbery,” said Ray.
“He’s given me a lot of trouble too.

I used to visit the grape arbor
With the intention of repast

And Ashbery would bark
And I’d have to run off, hungry.

But I now believe those grapes are sour.”
“Things always work out,” said the crab.

“Uh hun, uh hun,” said Ray.

Calling John Ashbery a dog-in-the-manger in 1976 was a bad politico-literary political move. Ashbery had stood me up for an interview and I thought that was a witty way of expressing my displeasure. It took him many years to forgive me

Just for the sake of comparison, my own “study” of Aesop follows my common practise of couplets with a lone line as fulcrum. Couplets are a stock poetic form. I adapt six fables to the contemporary art and literary scene as I saw it as a young man twenty five years ago. John Cage was already besieged by requests from editors and publishers and created his esoteric version of the acrostic to mystify and ultimately, perhaps, discourage the publishers. Imitating Ezra Pound and John Cage, we can all be re-write men.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Mesostics II

John Cage at the end of his life wrote mostly mesostics. In an essay on Jasper Johns written in the 1950s, Cage likens Johns’ preference for the American flag as subject to the preference poets have for the sonnet as a form. Some years later Cage turned to the mesostic. It is a formal variant of the acrostic. Richard Kostelanetz thinks he may have derived the form from Louis Mink. Cage credits Mac Low as influence:

“Mac Low’s Thoreau: he gives exact attention. No added flavor: just it. His poetry sets us ecstatic, though he insists we speak it “soberly and clearly (as in serious conversation).” Bells ring (Stein, Whitman): others will (Joyce, ancient Chinese). He was ringing them before we were able to hear. Musician, he introduced poetry to orchestra without syntax. Poet, he “sets all well afloat.” That’s why his poetry, even though it looks like it, is poetry.” (1971)

It is, in any case, fun as Scrabble. This excerpt of a longer Cage text opens The Cantos (121-150) Ezra Pound:
a Martyr

in thE best mdse.
and to hIs


small talK
ThE same
ANy effect

the syphilisAtion

Cage is here writing through a poem by A.M. Klein about Ezra Pound. Such texts are structured around a word or phrase that runs down the center of the text, in this case, the poet’s name, A.M. Klein. The second letter of the centered word or phrase or name begins, Cage says, a “string.”

Visually, mesostics are yang to the I Ching’s yin. Thus, the Chinese Book of Changes has a variable center line, and all else is identical. In a specific mesostic, on the other hand, what does not change is the center word. “What does not change,” wrote the poet Charles Olson “is the will to change.” Cage could also compose music by creating a visual score.

Cage’s mesostics have had little obvious influence. Only Mac Low, again, has done creditable work in the form. Only Michael McClure, of the other poets, writes centered poetry at all. Perhaps Cage’s texts are not poetry. Perhaps they are as discourse akin to the etude or musical “study.”

Anarchy (Wesleyan, 2001) is the most recent of three excellent posthumous Cage titles. Aside from the introduction, Anarchy is written wholly in mesostics. Anarchy pushes the mesostic into new complexity; but it is not without difficulty to the common reader. It brushes quotations against information. It offers homage to anarchists mostly forgotten or, if occasionally remembered, only by rioters in places like Genoa and Seattle and Miami, folks who probably prefer the Sex Pistols to John Cage.

Cage quotes Fuller: “It’s possible to make life a success for everyone.” He quotes Thoreau: “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

And he quotes Whitman:
For I am the sworn port of every dauntless rebel the world over
And he going with me leaves peace and routine behind him
And stakes his life to be lost at any minute.

Musicage (Wesleyan, 1996), edited by Joan Retallack, is a final conversation with Cage about his music, his visual art, and his writing. Retallack is a poet and suitable partner for Cage’s musing.

And John Cage, Writer (Limelight, 1993), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, is one of Kostelanetz’s best jobs. The book is better than some of the books Cage wrote when he was alive. Indeed, Kostelanetz was basically serving as Cage’s hands and eyes and legs on this project when Cage died suddenly of a stroke 12 August 1992. It reprints Cage’s mesostic on shoes which I published in Unmuzzled OX.

Merce 50, that 50th anniversary tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, headlined the vibrant Cage/Cunningham collaborations. The music and society pages of the newspapers were briefly all Cage/all Merce, just as they sometimes were fifteen years ago. What would have been Cage’s 90th birthday was celebrated with readings on WBAI-FM and at The Poetry Project.

Cage, freed of his body, lives.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Mesotics I

Cage sent a mesostic as reply to my poem "John Cage Shoes." I had, as a correspondence artist, connected. In the style of correspondance (sic) artists, I passed Cage’s mesostic on to Ray Johnson, founder of the New York Correspondance School. Johnson replied with an abstract ink drawing called John Cage Feet. I published my poem, Cage’s mesostic and Johnson’s drawing in the little magazine, Unmuzzled OX.

John Cage and Sari Dienes were neighbors in Stony Point. John would take Sari mushroom hunting. For The Poets’ Encyclopedia, John wrote on mushrooms, and Sari sculpted his portrait in mushrooms. Is that a good thing, as Martha Stewart used to say? Or is that a boring thing? Cage like to cook and he liked eat; he was almost a bon vivant. Was it Cage or Warhol or Duchamp who first proclaimed their love of bor-ing things?

Ezra Pound wrote 120 Cantos. They seem an unfinished experiment. I decided to publish extensions of these cantos in Unmuzzled OX. Cage wrote actual variations, and they opened The Cantos (121-150) Ezra Pound. He wrote through the cantos. He dug up fascist cantos that had never been published in English. Other contributors, such as Jackson MacLow, took their lead from Cage. Ray Johnson finally took two shoes and painted one John and the other Cage.

Cage has been dead for almost fifteen years. Cage tried to live longer; a final essay concerns macrobiotic cooking and philosophy. The vigorous or even gentle exercise of dance is healthier than abstruse spiritual exercise of music. Someday, I’d like to publish an anthology on the influence of John Cage, an anthology which would feature the mesostics in Unmuzzled OX. Mesostics are a good sample of one of the twentieth century’s most interesting minds. Sampling is a John Cage piece for radios.

Ray Johnson committed suicide.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

John Cage Shoes

Merce Cunningham, dancer and choreographer, wears John Cage shoes. Merce lived with John; Cage was Cunningham’s musical director and composer- in-residence. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company recently completed its 50th anniversary world tour. Cage died in 1992.

By how many years will Cunningham the dancer outlive Cage the composer? Yet, as the late Ray Johnson said, one evening at dinner in 1975, “We all dance in John Cage shoes.” Cage was, equally with Andy Warhol, a public philosopher of the arts. Ray, of course, knew John. Ray knew everybody who was anybody and John was certainly somebody.

“Oh them John Cage shoes give us all the blues,” Malcolm Morley at that dinner sang. Malcolm invented Photo-Realism and was also somebody.

“You can get a pair at J.C. Penney,” I said.

When the dinner ended, alone and sleepless as usual, I cast the I Ching, using the penny oracle. Cage at the time was writing, as he put it, through various books, notably Joyce and Thoreau. I then wrote six variations on Aesop, one for each line of the hexagram. I sent the poem to Johnson and via Sari Dienes to John Cage. I called it “John Cage Shoes."